Twenty years ago, as he announced the protection of roughly one-third of our national forests, among the most pristine wild places — so-called roadless areas — from development, President Bill Clinton said, “If there is one thing that should always unite us as a community, across the generations, across parties, across time, it is love for the land.”
During the final months of his administration, against the policy and wishes of the Forest Service, President Donald Trump revoked the protections created 20 years ago for more than 9.3 million acres of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. Our collective love for the land is all the reason President Joe Biden should need to reinstate protections for roadless areas of the Tongass.
As leaders in the Forest Service 20 years ago, our decision to include the Tongass in the Roadless Area Conservation Rule of 2001 was well-considered. The Tongass contains more than 9 million acres of pristine roadless areas and comprises 25% of the world’s temperate rainforests.
The Tongass is notorious for long-standing debates about money-losing and damaging old growth timber sales. It really should be known as America’s salmon forest. More than 25% of the salmon on the West Coast grow up in the forest’s streams. One in 10 jobs in southeast Alaska is connected to the nearly $1 billion-dollar salmon fishery. The salmon from the forest’s rivers and streams are of immense cultural, spiritual and subsistence value to Alaska Native Tribes.
The roadless rule did not spring like Athena full-grown from the head of Zeus. Our decision to protect 58 million acres of national forest was driven by ecological, economic, social and even historical imperatives.
Approximately 25% of the animals and 13% of the plants listed under the Endangered Species Act are likely to have habitat in roadless areas managed by the Forest Service. These lands are vital sources of clean drinking water for hundreds of communities across the nation, and their presence reduces water filtration costs for downstream communities and serves as a first line defense against climate change.
At the time President Clinton initiated the roadless rule, the Forest Service managed 380,000 miles of roads with a maintenance backlog of $8.6 billion. By the time we proposed the roadless rule, the Forest Service reported that 50% of the roads on national forests were in “poor condition and pose immediate threats to public safety or environmental degradation.”
The present situation on the Tongass is little better. According to Forest Service data, more than 1,100 bridges and culverts across streams on the Tongass fail to meet state and federal standards for fish migration. These failed bridges and culverts impede fish access to nearly 250 miles of salmon and trout streams.
The roadless rule was developed after 600 public meetings and 1.6 million comments. Ninety percent of them favored protecting roadless areas. Most recently on the Tongass, 96% of the public comments, including most Alaskans, supported keeping roadless areas intact. U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and others have introduced legislation that would make permanent the protection of our backcountry roadless areas. America isn’t making any more land. We should protect the best of what we have left of our last remaining wild places.
America’s great conservationist, Aldo Leopold, spoke in defense of leaving wild lands intact saying, “Such a policy would not subtract even a fraction of 1% from our economic wealth but would preserve a fraction of what has, since first the flight of years began, been wealth to the human spirit.”
Roadless areas are what remain of the vast American wilderness that tested our mettle as a nation. Egypt has its pyramids, Europe, its cathedrals, Africa its Serengeti, America has its parks, wilderness and remote roadless areas. The bounty of this land has provided life-giving subsistence to native peoples for centuries, and remains of immense spiritual and cultural value.
President Biden should make it a priority to roll back his predecessor’s ill-advised decision to remove protections for the Tongass and recommit to the preservation of our remaining wild roadless land. Development of its natural resources helped make America great. The humility to leave our last wild lands intact will sustain and allow us to endure.